During the month of Elul, Jewish tradition recommends that your take some time each day for cheshbon ha-nefesh, or taking an account of the soul.
All the month of Elul before eating and sleeping let every man sit and look into his soul, and search his deeds, that he may make confession. (S.Y. Agnon, Days of Awe, citing Maharil)
Alan Lew notes the same idea in his book, This is Real and You are Totally Unprepared. (My good friend Rube–Richard Rubinstein–recommended this book on the High Holidays to me last year, not long before he died of cancer, so it’s especially meaningful to me.)
All the rabbis who comment on this period make it clear that we … must set aside time each day of Elul to look at ourselves, to engage in self-evaluation and self-judgment, to engage in cheshbon-ha-nefesh, literally a spiritual accounting. But we get very little in the way of practical advice as to how we might do this.
Rabbi Lew goes on to give some practical advice.
He writes about prayer and meditation, and a third practice that doesn’t sound so familiar—focus on one thing. Lew sees this practice as a way to take an inventory of one’s soul without resorting to methods that some people see as too religious or even spooky. But even if you’re not spooked by prayer and meditation, you might want to try focusing on one thing for the month of Elul. Here’s Rabbi Lew again:
Just choose one simple and fundamental aspect of your life and commit yourself to being totally conscious and honest about it for the thirty days of Elul. “A world in a grain of sand,” as the poet William Blake reminded us. Everything we do is an expression of the entire truth of our lives. It doesn’t really make any difference what it is that we choose to focus on, but it ought to be something pretty basic, something like eating or sex or money, if for no other reason than that these concerns are likely to arise quite frequently in our lives and to give us a lot of grist for the mill.
I think I’ll choose picking up. You know, putting dishes in the dishwasher after you use them, putting the car keys in the right spot when you come home, hanging up your pants when you change into shorts—or not. I’m not going to work on improving my practice in this area, although I’m sure I could use some improvement. I’m just going to observe my behavior, which should reveal something about my character. The key, of course, is to focus on one thing with diligence. Without diligence, focus becomes sloppy and selective. I’ll focus when I feel like it, or when the one thing I have in mind is likely to make me look good, but other times I’ll just let it slide. Only with diligence in keeping the focus will focus on one thing produce meaningful cheshbon ha-nefesh.
Rav Shaul adds a dimension that requires even more diligence, but makes focus on one thing even more powerful: And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Yeshua, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Col 3:17, NRSV).
If I can’t do whatever I’m doing in the name of the Lord Yeshua, maybe I shouldn’t be doing it. Rav Shaul reminds us we take account of the soul not just as self-evaluation. Rather, our cheshbon ha-nefesh prepares us for the cheshbon in God’s presence during the Days of Awe, Rosh Ha-Shana through Yom Kippur. So as I focus on one thing, I do that thing in the name of Yeshua and give thanks to Hashem. If I’m diligent in doing that, I’m on the way to giving a good account.